SciTech Now Episode 322

In this episode of SciTech Now, how turf grass is impacting sports; an app and sensor that collects and graphs temperature data for tenants; a British researcher challenges how we look at aging; and innovative technology for people with disabilities.



Coming up... the evolving science of turfgrass.

We look at methods in both synthetic and natural to try to make that surface softer when a player impacts that surface so that would try to lower our chances of concussions.

Hacking housing injustice...

Tenants who have trouble getting their heat turned on in the winter often turn to public-interest attorneys, who then reach out to us, and they get a temperature sensor installed free of cost to them.

A crusade against aging...

We can go in and eliminate the damage that the body does to itself as a side effect of its normal operation.

Technology's key to accessibility...

Using that technology to provide people, regardless of what abilities they have, better access to the things that we all have access to is really the effective part.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

For athletes, it can mean the difference between a win and a loss.

Turfgrass isn't just an aesthetic choice.

It's an evolving science and a $60 billion industry.

At the Joseph Valentine Turfgrass Research Center, a 17-acre research facility in University Park, Pennsylvania, scientists are learning how turf is impacting sports.

Here's the story.

In science, few fields get more exposure.

You see it every week on TV -- perfect grass that puts your yard to shame.

But there's more to these manicured fields than sunshine and soil.

This is just the surface of a serious science and an estimated $60 billion industry.

When you consider that the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed, it's been estimated recently it's the largest crop in the entire watershed.

There's more turf than corn, for example.

You heard right.

More turf than corn -- roughly 3 million acres, or nearly 10% of the total land area.

Pete Landschoot is professor of turfgrass science at Penn State, a program with roots reaching back to 1928, when a group of golf-course superintendents, including a man named Joseph Valentine, asked the university to help them grow better grass.

A professor named Burt Musser, who was a clover breeder, was appointed to have a half-time position in turf.

So, that was during the late 1920s, and the program started very slowly through the '30s, into the '40s.

If you could go back to the 1950s and look at some of the grasses back then and compare them to what we have today, it's like night and day.

Today, the science continues here -- the Joseph Valentine Turfgrass Research Center, dedicated in 1970.

It's 17 acres of bluegrass, ryegrass, fescue, and bent grass, grass so green and so short, our photographer Tyler thought it was fake.

But on a small plot in the back corner, we got an up-close look at how turfgrass science is evolving and impacting sports at every level.

But before we explain this... we need to explain why the playing surface is so important to elite athletes.

So, we asked the defending national champs, the Penn State women's soccer team, to break it down.

We always say that Penn State is the best place in the country to play college soccer.

And the number-one reason why is because of Jeffrey Field and the quality of the surface.

We play on some other fields that they might be turf.

They might be a different kind of grass.

But, honestly, when we play on a field like this, it's the best surface, and we have our best touches and our best moments out here.

We've had a moment where our goalkeeper has slipped on a surface in an away match, and it cost us the game, right?

One moment, one instance can cost you a match.

So often, soccer games are 1-0 or 2-1, and that one goal makes all the difference in the world.

For the players, performance is everything.

But the glory of the game can fade in the face of injury, and that brings us back to the science... and Andrew McNitt.

He's the director of the Penn State Center for Sports Surface Research.

A player interacts with the surface in two ways.

They either fall on it, or they have a player-to-shoe-to-surface interaction.

So, what we want to do is look at making that field very playable, but at the same time safe.

Defining a surface-related injury can be complicated.

But studies dating back more than 30 years link about 20% of sports injuries to the playing surface.

The most serious include sprains, broken bones, ligament damage, and concussions.

To improve safety, McNitt and his colleagues are focusing on two key factors -- traction and surface hardness.

We look at methods in both synthetic and natural to try to make that surface softer when a player impacts that surface so that would try to lower our chances of concussions.

At the professional level, field managers across the country measure surface hardness with one of these -- a Clegg impact hammer.

It looks a little like a bicycle pump.

Here's how it works.

The user drops a weight, and an accelerometer measures how fast it stops.

The harder the surface, the higher the score.

Testing like this is mandatory in the National Football League, and it's something McNitt would like to see at all levels.

We've actually heard from some administrators at high schools in the past that 'We don't want to know, because then we're liable if we know.'

However, those days are almost gone.

The idea that you can just put your head in the sand and pretend like these issues don't exist is rapidly becoming an old thought.

But not all athletes can choose where they play.

If you can't pick your field, what you put on your feet can make a big difference.

While there is a difference between synthetic turf and natural turf, as far as the amount of traction it provides, that difference is this large.

And when we start to look at the difference due to shoes, that becomes much larger.

So, shoe selection by coaches, athletes, parents, trainers is very important.

Safe or unsafe traction levels haven't been established, but McNitt and his colleagues are looking into it.

They've tested dozens of cleats and maintain a database on their website.

We don't have a safety cutoff, but we sort of have a gradient, and you can pick a shoe that is medium in traction.

So, you could try to reduce injury that way.

Parents should simply be aware that the equipment that their youth athlete wears is often as important as the surface they're playing on.

You can't have one without the other.

Lack of heat is consistently the number-one complaint during a New York City winter.

In 2015, the city received more than 200,000 heat-related complaints, mostly from lower-income neighborhoods.

But these tenants now have a tech-savvy ally.

Heat Seek is a mobile app and a sensor that collects and graphs temperature data, helping tenants hold their landlords accountable and to stay warm.

Heat Seek's director of programs, Anthony Damelio, is with us now.

So, first of all, how can what this box has in it help a tenant hold their landlord accountable?


So, tenants who have trouble getting their heat turned on in the winter often turn to public-interest attorneys or community organizers, who then reach out to us, or we have a relationship already with them.

And they get a temperature sensor installed free of cost to them.

So, we're a nonprofit.

We have a certain number of these, and we build partnerships with community organizations and go out and install sensors in apartments of tenants who have trouble getting their heat turned on.

So, this box sits on their floor or sits in their house somewhere, and then the other part is basically sending that information back to you?

So, this is the actual sensor itself.

It's a thermistor on the side.

This gets mounted in this black box and stuck on the wall about three feet up around the place where the city inspects temperature readings.

And it wakes up once an hour.

Sends its reading to this device here, which is a Raspberry Pi, a mini computer.

These two XB radios talk to each other, and then the readings get sent over the Internet through this on-board Internet connection to our online app, where they get compressed and matched with external temperature readings for that location and for that hour to spit out into a graph and a temperature log, which displays very clearly when the building would be in violation of New York City housing code.

New York City housing code says that if it's a certain temperature outside, it still needs to be a certain temperature inside.


Yeah, from October 1st through the end of May each year, if the temperature falls 55 degrees or below, it must be 68 degrees or above inside during the daytime, from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

And overnight, if it falls below 45 degrees outside, it must be at least 55 degrees inside.

So, landlords are not keeping the heat on to, what, save money?


So, about 50%, the city says, are landlords who just make a mistake, one-time offenders.

The boiler breaks, something happens, and then they go and fix it.

The other 50% is a mix of sort of your traditional slumlord, who just wants to avoid providing services to save money.

And then sort of a new development that we've seen since the housing crash are predatory landlords -- so, folks who are withholding heat and using any other way they can to drive out rent-regulated tenants so that they can bring those apartments up to market rate and make a bunch more money.

How much would it cost to actually make one of these?

This is a pretty simple idea, and hopefully it catches on and spreads from not just this city but lots of other places.

Sure, yeah.

So, these are relatively simple devices, but they're not consumer-grade right now.

So, the cell is sort of around $30, depending on quantity.

And this unit is around $70.

So, these were made about three years ago from a volunteer team.

So, the technology has changed since then.

So, if we were to build them today, we would probably use some different parts.

And we're looking at a redesign this upcoming winter to see if we can bring the costs down even further.

Is it part of a larger movement about social justice, where the technology industry can help?


The Internet of Things is a really hot topic right now.

So, it's devices that are used in the home that are connected to your wider system.

The Nest is a great example of that, or refrigerators that you can track on your cellphone.

But we believe that technology should be leveraged not just for folks who can afford expensive devices, like you and me, but for the wider population, who may need technology to solve some of their most pressing problems, like lack of heat, lack of hot water, or other sorts of abuses in the home.

What have you learned from doing this, now that you've been doing this two or three years now?

You're in a number of buildings in New York.


We've learned that technology is not a panacea.

It's not going to sort of come on the scene and radically transform the system.

But it's a useful tool for the players who already exist, whether that is the city or whether that is community advocates who work alongside tenants.

We've learned that humans are complicated animals who don't always know how to use data and who aren't used to systems like this -- housing-court judges, for example, who never come across things like this and who just need to be educated about how the technology works to ensure that it's providing reliable data.

This is a verifiable fact that can be used in a court against a landlord, saying, 'Here's all the history I have of what the temperature's been in my apartment day after day after day.

And, by the way, here's the weather data and how cold it was outside all those days.'

Yeah, so, lawyers have used our data in settlements with landlords' attorneys last winter.

Most cases get settled outside of court and don't go to a trial.

Our hope is that this winter we'll find one attorney who really wants to drive it through with a good case so that it might be admitted as evidence in housing court.

All right.

Anthony Damelio with Heat Seek.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you so much.

A British researcher is challenging how we look at death and aging.

Researcher Aubrey de Grey argues that aging is a curable disease if scientists approach it as an engineering challenge.

Up next, reporter Andrea Vasquez talks to de Grey via Google Hangout.

Aubrey de Grey, thanks very much for being with us.

My pleasure.

So, let's start with biomedical gerontology.

I know 'biomedical.'

I know 'gerontology.'

What is that when you put them together?

Well, really, it's simply a research field in which we try to develop new medicines that will be able to extend healthy life and postpone the ill health of old age as far as possible, more so than we can do today.

So, you're looking at aging essentially as a disease that you're trying to cure or slow?

Well, it's a bit dangerous to call it a disease, and it's also a bit dangerous to use the word 'cure.'

So, really, I would say it's a medical condition, certainly.

It's something that's amenable to medical intervention.

But it can't really be cured because it's a side effect of being alive, a side effect of the body's normal operation.

So, it can never be eliminated from the body.

What we can do instead is essentially preventative maintenance.

We can go in and eliminate the damage that the body does to itself as a side effect of its normal operation.

And if we can do that reasonably comprehensively, periodically, then we will keep the overall level of damage down to a level that the body is set up to tolerate.

So, you're talking about the wear and tear of going through life, as opposed to just the degradation of our cells?

Well, kind of both.

I mean, the main reason why we get sick when we get old is because a lot of the essential, fundamental things that the body has to do to keep us alive create damage as an inevitable side effect.

Breathing is probably the most significant example.

Breathing is really bad for you.

It creates free radicals, and free radicals damage DNA and so on.

So, breathing is an enormous component of why we age.

But it's rather nonnegotiable.


[ Laughs ] So, what are some of the other things that we're doing by necessity that are actually damaging our bodies?

Well, just eating isn't exactly good for you.

For example, a lot of the damage that happens, including, for example, the stiffening of our blood vessels that causes hypertension in the elderly is driven by the reaction of sugars with the proteins that make up our body.

And, again, sugar is something that we require.

It's an essential nutrient.


So, you have said that the first people who could live to be 1,000 have already been born.

Does that mean that we would have had to already start some sort of regimen, or what are you suggesting in terms of how consistently you need to be maintaining that treatment?

I think that's true because I think within the next 20 or so years, we have a very good chance of developing this comprehensive preventative maintenance that I was talking about to a decisive level of comprehensiveness.

It doesn't need to be 100% comprehensive in order to do this job.

So, that will apply to people who are already in middle age at the time that those therapies are developed, which means, obviously, people who are alive today.

So, you'll be -- in slowing down the aging process, will all the facilities also be slowed down?

Because then there's a question of quality of life.

I don't need to be 1,000 if nothing's working anymore.


So, absolutely not.

The real misconception in your question is the idea that this is anything to do with slowing down a process.

It's not.

This is to do with repairing the damage that results from the process.

So, aging itself, the process of breathing, creating free radicals that do damage, that will still happen in a completely unaffected way.

It will be happening at the normal rates.

But we then step in, intercede at the next step.

We eliminate that damage by a variety of different therapies, and that means that the damage never reaches a level of abundance that is outside the tolerance and below of the human body.

So, we're not really slowing anything down.

Okay, we're just keeping everything moving efficiently so that it can last longer.


So, what are these therapies?

What kinds of things do they entail?

Well, there's quite a variety.

So, one that everyone's familiar with already is stem-cell therapy.

Stem-cell therapy is the way to repair one particular type of damage, namely cell loss.

When cells die, and they're not automatically replaced by division of other cells, then we can use stem cells, put them into the body, and those stem cells will be preprogrammed in the laboratory to divide and transform into replacements for the cells that the body is not replacing.

Another example would be the elimination of waste products.

There are certain waste products that slowly but surely accumulate inside cells -- different waste products in different cell types.

And those things are responsible eventually for diseases like atherosclerosis and macular degeneration.

If we can eliminate those waste products by introducing new enzymes that have the capacity to eliminate them, to break them down, then we just won't get those diseases.

Is there the possibility or any interest in eventually applying this to nonhumans, to animals or plants?

There's certainly no reason why we should not be able to apply them to other animals, though it must be remembered that an animal that lives less long than we do, the reason it lives less long is because, if you like, there are more gaps in its in-built damage-repair machinery than there are in ours, which means that it's inherently more difficult to eliminate aging, basically to fill the gaps, to eliminate all of the types of damage in a short-lived mammal, like a cat, for example, than it would be in a human being.

If we go further, if we go to, like, plants, then the whole concept of aging is very differently defined in the first place.

So, let's not go there.

[ Laughs ] That's fair.

And is your motivation and also the motivation for a lot of the people who work at the SENS Foundation and other people who are working toward this, is it about a desire to prolong life or curiosity to see how far we can push these limits?

It's really neither of those things.

It's a much more prosaic and uncontroversial thing.

Namely, we don't like to see people getting sick.

We are doing standard medical research.

It's just medical research.

And, of course, the point is that we'll have a side effect of having people live a lot longer as a result, because let's face it.

Most people die of being sick.

And therefore if we can stop people getting sick, there will be that side effect.

But we work on stopping people from getting sick, and we're not really focused on longevity, per se, as a goal.


Aubrey de Grey, thanks very much for being with us.

My pleasure.

Thanks for having me.

Design and creativity are front and center at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Professors and students alike have partnered with a local organization in Rochester, New York, to improve access for people with a variety of disabilities through innovative technology solutions.

Here's a look.

This is a really cool tool.

Barry Culhane is counting the days until he can finally walk again without help.

I walked into a herniated-disk surgery and woke up paralyzed.

Never expecting that.

The trained psychologist and former Army medic didn't let the sudden physical setback change his positive outlook.

I'm an eternal optimist.

So, I kind of looked at this like, well, every path has its puddle, and this is gonna be mine for a little while.

He's made progress since the incident and thinks he'll be rid of the wheelchair and using only a walker in a few months.

Culhane has served for years on the board of the Al Sigl Community of Agencies and sees firsthand how the company helps nonprofits in upstate New York provide resources to people with special needs.

Meanwhile, his day job is at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where breakthrough technological advancements are practically at his fingertips.

Culhane convinced the two organizations to work together to focus on access and inclusion for everyone.

Fast-forward a few years, and the partnership between Al Sigl and RIT has contributed to more than 70 effective access-technology projects.

Dan Phillips is an engineering professor at RIT who spearheads the design projects.

Using that technology to provide people, regardless of what abilities they have, better access to the things that we all have access to is really the effective part.

Last year, Phillips sent two students to take part in a co-op program.

For a semester, they worked full-time at different Al Sigl agencies, observed each workflow, and then began brainstorming.

Crystal Mendoza Paulin and her partner came back to RIT with dozens of ideas.

Our first week was actually with the Rochester Hearing and Speech Center, and the first project that actually jumped out at us was the idea of a smart rug.

The student noticed some challenges for the therapists working with children with developmental disabilities.

Grabbing their attention during class time was one thing.

But she says once the kids were removed from the classroom and asked to go for a walk, the lack of focus intensified.

So, we thought, well, if we could put out, like, a mat along the hallway and maybe do some lights or other attention-calling -- something that would focus them -- that would help them just with that motor planning of walking down the hallway with their teachers and other students.

The rug is in pieces right now, but the school's industrial-design team is hard at work trying to perfect it.

The first module would start interacting, emitting lights and sounds.

Once the child approaches the first module, it would stop blinking and interacting.

And then the second module would start working.

Once you get to the second one, the third would start, and then so on.

[ Buzzes ]

Nearby on campus, the senior design team is working on other inventions.

One group is developing an all-terrain walker for people with disabilities like cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis.

They say it will easily trudge through dips and bumps on sidewalks and in parks.

So, this is just like a prototype?


It's just something we were using as a testing rig.

And this is a ratchet on the actual wheel.

And the user will be able to use this lever arm to push themselves along.

So, they can sit down on the walker and use their arms to push themselves because their legs might not work so well to do that.

Each year the projects are put on display at RIT's Effective Access Technology Conference.

It's an event for researchers and developers to share solutions for access and inclusion.

The third conference was held last November.

And this is the latest one.

So, here we have implemented the innovation, using these two sensors...

To assist a blind person, an electronic voice inside this smart cane can warn of an oncoming obstacle, and using vibration on the cane's left or right side can tell the person which direction to avoid.

Take a cane.

And now GPS, couple it with some sensors to give you an idea of proximity of a curb or a wall, integrate it all together, and then provide the feedback basically via touch.

Culhane says he hopes that down the line, these future engineers and business owners will develop companies that will produce the devices on a larger scale.

But for the students working right alongside the people who need the technology the most, their fulfillment comes simply from making a difference.

It changes them, and that's something you can't put in a curriculum.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by...